Book Review: Carl Cannon's Unputdownable 'On This Date'
In the film Diner, the 1980 Barry Levinson classic about young adults resisting adulthood in late 1950s Baltimore, Timothy Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) asks Boogie (Mickey Rourke) if “You ever get the feeling there's something going on that we don't know about?” Fenwick was referring to women, and in particular a pretty girl from a part of Baltimore far (in a figurative sense) from their Fell’s Point hangouts, but in reality, he was talking about the world in general. There’s so much that we don’t know.
That’s one of many reasons why readers will find Carl Cannon’s On This Date: From the Pilgrims to Today, Discovering America One Day at a Time so enjoyable, so insightful, and so educational about the U.S. The polymath author (full disclosure: Cannon is Washington Bureau Chief of RealClearPolitics, and I’m editor of RealClearMarkets) describes in endlessly interesting fashion historical occurrences that took place each day in the calendar year.
Cannon is unapologetic about his love of all things the United States, and as such, On This Date is his glowing tribute to the country he loves uncontrollably. He views the book as a fulfillment of a duty to do his part to give back to a nation that’s given him so much. Cannon much more than succeeds, and in the process entertains. While each “Date” is usually less than a page, the reader will resist putting aside what’s unputdownable. Day after day Cannon delivers interesting information. Cannon will enliven what readers think they already know, after which he’ll spark interest in what they don’t know, or had never much thought about.
Maybe most important of all, Cannon provides perspective through his description of interesting historical events. While he doesn’t preach, his wondrous portrait of America through the centuries gently reminds us to look inward. Lucky as we are to be Americans, it's arguable that the abundance we're surrounded with causes us to sometimes forget how good we have it, and how much better it gets all the time.
A useful way of explaining the above point comes care of Election 2016. About it, it's very American to presume that the times we're living in are easily the most important, and the most consequential in consideration of the future. Anyone who doubts the previous characterization need only remember all the superlatives that were attached to Trump vs. Clinton. Fair enough, but in the early 1950s Polio was still crippling “thousands of children every year and was often fatal.” Talk about scary, yet according to extreme partisans on each side of the ideological divide, the election of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was going to “ruin,” “wreck,” or “end” the United States. What an insult to the U.S. for anyone to suggest that any one constitutionally limited president could ruin the country, but also what an insult to the past. Not too long ago parents had much greater life and death worries to contemplate, as opposed to complaining endlessly about term-limited leaders whose actions are thankfully muzzled by Congress and the Supreme Court.
And while Cannon is aggressively non-partisan, he perhaps reminds us how alarmist we can be too. The alarmism is not necessarily a bad thing. Economic progress is about the removal of unease. With progress we have more time to observe the world around us, to think, and at times, to overreact. Interesting there is that while Cannon briefly describes the “discovery of deposits of Texas crude” as an occurrence that “coincided with the dawn of the automobile age,” he makes the point that “humans had known the stuff was in the ground there for centuries.” All of which raises several questions from your reviewer about whether oil spills and consumption of same are as meaningful as increasingly excitable Americans think they are. If oil comes from the earth already, can it really damage the earth from which it was extracted? And if oil consumption threatens life on this planet, wasn't life expectancy quite a bit lower before the discovery of oil's myriad economic applications that have led to massive wealth creation, and by extension, exponentially greater living standards? Can progress truly harm us?
For the entertainment focused, there are stories of television shows like Friends and Seinfeld, musical groups like the Beatles and Beach Boys (Good Vibrations required “Six months and ninety hours of tape” for Brian Wilson to get “the sound he wanted”), and entertaining little things about certain individuals who made a living entertaining us. It seems W.C. Fields despised “social conservatives” and “nanny state” types, and also “’detested high taxes.’” In other words, Fields was a libertarian.
Interesting about Fields is that while he privately “owned dogs and doted on his friends’ children,” his public persona gave the impression that he hated “everyone equally.” Fields wasn’t alone in creating impressions with mass appeal in mind. While famed Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken “pronounced the institution of matrimony ‘the end of hope,’” “America’s Best-Known Bachelor” ultimately fell for a woman eighteen years younger than he, only to marry her.
On February 28, 1827, Cannon writes that the “Baltimore & Ohio Railroad became the first railway chartered in the country.” The B&O’s creation is a reminder to readers that as people we’ve been feverishly searching for ways to kill distance for centuries. In short, we’re wired to trade, and trade freely. When politicians erect barriers to exchange, it’s as though they’re dynamiting modern versions of the B&O.
They’re also shutting off knowledge, and culture. Figure that the jet airplane was yet another creation of great minds meant to bring the world closer together. On February 7, 1964, Pan Am’s Yankee Clipper flight 101 delivered the Beatles to New York, and in so doing, forever changed the musical landscape for the better. The Beatles had been greatly influenced by American musicians, but also influenced them. The eventual release of Rubber Soul blew Brian Wilson away, at which point fear about the Beach Boys being left behind musically unearthed the creativity that led to Pet Sounds. As Cannon explains it about the exchange of goods and services that we call trade, “The point here is that global competition, much maligned in the politics of the twenty-first century, also entails transnational creativity – and worldwide sharing.” Amen. We mess with free trade not just to our economic detriment, but also to our knowledge and culture detriment.
In terms of race and gender relations, Cannon writes about actress Hattie McDaniel’s win of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the housemaid Mammy in the classic film, Gone With the Wind. Many film buffs are surely aware of McDaniel’s victory, but Cannon reminds us how frequently we overrate the past. While McDaniel won the Oscar, Cannon writes that during filming “she was seated at a segregated table, away from her fellow cast members.” Jackie Robinson made history as the first black major leaguer, but in crossing the hideous color line he had to suffer “vicious” racial epithets from fans. Kathrine Switzer wasn’t the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, but she was the first to register (as K.V. Switzer to hide her identity) for the Marathon, and run it. In the process two race officials “tried to physically remove her,” while one told her to “Get the hell out of my race.” McDaniel suffered her indignities on the Gone With the Wind set in the late 1930s, Robinson in 1947, and Switzer in 1966. Times were better back then? Greatest Generation? Cannon’s book will cause readers to think, and think deeply. This reverence for the past is so overdone, be it culturally, socially or economically.
Speaking of economics, it’s perhaps trite to say it, but hard work is always and everywhere the source of good economy. We can’t forget that economies are just people, and the hard working have much greater odds of thriving. Success isn’t easy, and that’s the point. Cannon reports that Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton was “was at work at 4:30 in the morning” each day, while the source of Ben Hogan’s great achievements on the golf links was that “’I always outworked everybody.’” The lover of all things American Cannon might have added that Hogan was also lucky enough to be born in the United States where the athletically gifted have long been able to marry endless work hours with that which reinforces their talents.
Were there disagreements with On This Date, or quibbles? There are always a few with any book mainly because everyone’s reading a different one. Our biases intrude. Cannon lauds Jonas Salk for having never “personally profited” from his Polio vaccine that saved kids, and adults too, from paralysis. Fair enough, but there’s a good argument that the talented who work feverishly to save lives should try to profit as much as possible. Much as Jeff Bezos’s successful commercial ideas pay for many more new experiments meant to please the customer, so do profitable medical advances pay for the pursuit of new cures. Knowledge on its own is great, but knowledge backed with capital can save lives. March of Dimes donations helped fund Salk’s pursuit of a Polio cure, but capitalistic profits (one could argue that the Dimes' donations were just that) launch knowledge too. Lest we forget, before John D. Rockefeller’s billions earned lighting up the night and powering automobiles, scarlet fever was a killer. It even killed a grandchild of Rockefeller’s. Now we don’t even think of it. Rockefeller’s investment in the search for a cure looms large here.
Lastly, there’s the subject of World War II. In this case, the disagreement isn't with Cannon as much as it's a loud and passionate disagreement with what is settled economic history. In Cannon's case, he retells uplifting, but also devastating stories of the horrid war. He doesn’t try to glamorize what was hideous. He quotes Dwight D. Eisenhower’s crucial statement that “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” From there Cannon tells the heart-wrenching story of Frank Elliott’s wartime exchanges with his wife. In a letter sent to Pennsylvania he tells her that he “would certainly like to be on hand when Dee [his 3-year old daughter] goes to see her first movie.” Readers can imagine how this story ends.
And while the story of Gerda Weissmann (imprisoned by the Nazis “for the crime of being Jewish”) and American GI Kurt Klein has a happier ending, Cannon’s retell of this amazing happening reminds readers yet again about how maddeningly stupid war is. Cannon’s book is many things, it will be many things to many people, and his desire to reveal the horrors of what is endlessly cruel and unnecessary makes spectacular what's already excellent.
In that case, the disagreement with Cannon isn’t with his crucial accounting of war’s endless agonies. It once again concerns a rather settled historical narrative that’s become ingrained within the left and right since the end of WWII. It’s the notion that the U.S. emerged from the war stronger economically; that the murder, maiming and wealth destruction that was WWII ended the Great Depression for the U.S. Cannon is once again aggressively non-partisan, so in reporting that the “United States had emerged as a military and political powerhouse after World War II, and had come roaring out of the Great Depression economically,” he's merely reporting what’s long been accepted by most schools of economic and political thought as true. Except that it’s not.
People are the source of economic advance, but over 400,000 able-bodied Americans died in World War II, while 600,000 were wounded. World War II didn’t end the Great Depression, but it did set the U.S. economy back incalculably. It can’t be measured simply because the economic devastation is unseen. Unknown is how many Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and Jeff Bezos equivalents were murdered from the 1941 to 1945. World War II didn’t save us from economic desperation; rather it extended it for the war robbing our best and brightest of the ability to produce for and be produced for by others. Growth is suffocated when Americans are killing potential customers around the world at the same time that those potential customers are killing off Americans. The war didn’t revive the U.S. economy thanks to spending on soldiers and weapons of destruction as much as the spending was an effect of a rebounding U.S. economy that began to grow in 1939. Politicians can only spend insofar as the private sector creates wealth for them to tax to begin with. Unseen and forever unknown will be what those who died could have done if matched with the capital spent on the war.
Looking at WWII from Europe’s perspective, and Japan’s, what did a continent and a country lose? Germany and Japan alone were literally destroyed (Cannon's chapter on Hiroshima particularly telling in terms of destruction), not to mention the millions of humans extinguished. Both are economcially powerful countries today, but can readers even begin to contemplate how much more advanced they would be absent all the murder?
Looking at Europe and Asia through the prism of the U.S., economic growth is an effect of labor constantly being divided so that individuals can more and more pursue the work specialization that elevates their unique talents. Yet WWII exterminated the able of mind and body in ways that no one could ever reasonably calculate. Absent the war in which all this genius was irresponsibly wasted, how many Apple, Microsoft and Samsung equivalents sprout up in Europe and Asia to our economic betterment stateside, and vice versa? War is the ultimate economic depressant because it kills off the very people who make economic growth possible. Cannon was again reporting what's settled, and it’s certainly true that the U.S. economy boomed after the war. Still, the post-war boom is but a sad reminder of how much bigger the U.S. economy would have been after 1945 absent the life-snuffing errors of the world's statesman. It would be hard to find a bigger indictment of the economics profession than the ugly falsehood that confidently suggests war brings with it positive, prosperous tradeoffs.
Off of my soapbox, I’ll reiterate once again what’s true: On This Date is wonderful, and it’s a book I’ll be recommending to many people for a long time. Cannon has a triumph on his hands that readers will be glad they’ve read, and that gift recipients will be glad they received. There’s so much we don’t know about, but that Cannon is telling us about in riveting fashion.